RPG Evolution: Do We Still Need "Race" in D&D?

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The term "race" is a staple of fantasy that is now out of sync with modern usage. With Pathfinder shifting from "race" to "ancestry" in its latest edition, it raises the question: should fantasy games still use it?


“Race” and Modern Parlance

We previously discussed the challenges of representing real-life cultures in a fantasy world, with African and Asian countries being just two examples. The discussion becomes more complicated with fantasy "races"—historically, race was believed to be determined by the geographic arrangement of populations. Fantasy gaming, which has its roots in fantasy literature, still uses the term “race” this way.

Co-creator of D&D Gary Gygax cited R.E. Howard's Conan series as an influence on D&D, which combines Lovecraftian elements with sword and sorcery. Howard's perceptions may have been a sign of the times he lived in, but it seems likely they influenced his stories. Robert B. Marks explains just how these stereotypes manifested in Conan's world:
The young, vibrant civilizations of the Hyborian Age, like Aquilonia and Nemedia, are white - the equivalent of Medieval Europe. Around them are older Asiatic civilizations like Stygia and Vendhya, ancient, decrepit, and living on borrowed time. To the northwest and the south are the barbarian lands - but only Asgard and Vanaheim are in any way Viking. The Black Kingdoms are filled with tribesmen evoking the early 20th century vision of darkest Africa, and the Cimmerians and Picts are a strange cross between the ancient Celts and Native Americans - and it is very clear that the barbarians and savages, and not any of the civilized people or races, will be the last ones standing.
Which leads us to the other major fantasy influence, author J.R.R. Tolkien. David M. Perry explains in an interview with Helen Young:
In Middle Earth, unlike reality, race is objectively real rather than socially constructed. There are species (elves, men, dwarves, etc.), but within those species there are races that conform to 19th-century race theory, in that their physical attributes (hair color, etc.) are associated with non-physical attributes that are both personal and cultural. There is also an explicit racial hierarchy which is, again, real in the world of the story.
The Angry GM elaborates on why race and culture were blended in Tolkien's works:
The thing is, in the Tolkienverse, at least, in the Lord of the Rings version of the Tolkienverse (because I can’t speak for what happened in the Cinnabon or whatever that other book was called), the races were all very insular and isolated. They didn’t deal with one another. Race and culture went hand in hand. If you were a wood elf, you were raised by wood elves and lived a thoroughly wood elf lifestyle until that whole One Ring issue made you hang out with humans and dwarves and halflings. That isolation was constantly thrust into the spotlight. Hell, it was a major issue in The Hobbit.
Given the prominence of race in fantasy, it's not surprising that D&D has continued the trend. That trend now seems out of sync with modern parlance; in 1951, the United Nations officially declared that the differences among humans were "insignificant in relation to the anthropological sameness among the peoples who are the human race."

“Race” and Game Design

Chris Van Dyke's essay on race back in 2008 explains how pervasive "race" is in D&D:
Anyone who has played D&D has spent a lot of time talking about race – “Racial Attributes,” “Racial Restrictions,” “Racial Bonuses.” Everyone knows that different races don’t get along – thanks to Tolkien, Dwarves and Elves tend to distrust each other, and even non-gamers know that Orcs and Goblins are, by their very nature, evil creatures. Race is one of the most important aspects of any fantasy role-playing game, and the belief that there are certain inherent genetic and social distinctions between different races is built into every level of most (if not all) Fantasy Role-Playing Games.
Racial characteristics in D&D have changed over time. Basic Dungeons & Dragons didn't distinguish between race and class for non-humans, such that one played a dwarf, elf, or halfling -- or a human fighter or cleric. The characteristics of race were so tightly intertwined that race and profession were considered one.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the changes became more nuanced, but not without some downsides on character advancement, particularly in allowing “demihumans” to multiclass but with level limits preventing them from exceeding humanity, who had unlimited potential (but could only dual-class).

With Fifth Edition, ability penalties and level caps have been removed, but racial bonuses and proficiencies still apply. The Angry GM explains why this is a problem:
In 5E, you choose a race and a class, but you also choose a background. And the background represents your formative education and socio-economic standing and all that other stuff that basically represents the environment in which you were raised. The racial abilities still haven’t changed even though there is now a really good place for “cultural racial abilities” to live. So, here’s where the oddity arises. An elf urchin will automatically be proficient with a longsword and longbow, two weapons that requires years of training to even become remotely talent with, but a human soldier does not get any automatic martial training. Obviously, in both cases, class will modify that. But in the life of your character, race happens first, then background, and only later on do you end up a member of a class. It’s very quirky.
Perhaps this is why Pathfinder decided to take a different approach to race by shifting to the term “ancestry”:
Beyond the narrative, there are many things that have changed, but mostly in the details of how the game works. You still pick a race, even though it is now called your ancestry. You still decide on your class—the rulebook includes all of the core classes from the First Edition Core Rulebook, plus the alchemist. You still select feats, but these now come from a greater variety of sources, such as your ancestry, your class, and your skills.
"Ancestry" is not just a replacement for the word “race.” It’s a fluid term that requires the player to make choices at character creation and as the character advances. This gives an opportunity to express human ethnicities in game terms, including half-elves and half-orcs, without forcing the “subrace” construct.

The Last Race

It seems likely that, from both a modern parlance and game design perspective, “race” as it is used today will fall out of favor in fantasy games. It’s just going to take time. Indigo Boock sums up the challenge:
Fantasy is a doubled edged sword. Every human culture has some form of fantasy, we all have some sort of immortal ethereal realm where our elven creatures dwell. There’s always this realm that transcends culture. Tolkien said, distinct from science fiction (which looks to the future), fantasy is to feel like one with the entire universe. Fantasy is real, deep human yearning. We look to it as escapism, whether we play D&D, or Skyrim, or you are like myself and write fantasy. There are unfortunately some old cultural tropes that need to be discarded, and it can be frustratingly slow to see those things phased out.
Here's hoping other role-playing games will follow Pathfinder's lead in how treats its fantasy people in future editions.
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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Rotten DM
Ok some people are Ticked off by race and want to swap out ancestry. As long you define it in the data dictionary section of your book.
Ancestry the physical looks and some abilities of you pc. Choose 1 from chart “A” and 1 chart “B” or 2 from chart “C”. Choose 2 chart 0. Or you can choose human +1 to all stats. Or Vary Human the feat thing. Note if you choose +x to stat you can only apply a max of 2 to stat.
Chart 0. Pointed ears, short under 3 feet, tall and muscles over 6.5 feet, fat, fey, etc
Chart A. Long life (elf), choose melee weapon, lucky feat, +1 stat,
Chart B. Range weapon, darkvision, +2 stat, etc
Etc etc etc
Changing the subject
Redbeard mentions ….Neil Gaiman who? Oh the author of Coraline. I saw the movie. You going to quote something from an author who I never hear of to make a point. Yawn. Yes I google his quote.


First Post
Who's actually arguing this?

And why's there a big pile of straw on the floor?

In this same thread, we already have posts stating problems with "ancestry", the supposedly better term that replaced race in PF2.

In this same thread, we have a poster stating "That we're using fantasy ethnicity is irrelevant because it's causing real world emotions." Tell me where the limits on that argument are? If context and actual word definitions are irrelevant and all that is required is for someone to have real world emotions regarding a word in order to ban it, where does that stop?

Multiple arguments here in favor of removing the word from the D&D lexicon, where it is used appropriately and without offense, are based on real world history and questionable use there. I would rather see an otherwise neutral word that is used in good faith, correctly and without bias be "reclaimed" for lack of a better term and accepted rather than banned so that we can use less precise words in its place.

This is how it goes when you try to make sure you cannot possibly offend anyone - it's effectively a fool's errand because someone will always be offended and the end result is a diminishing of language and expression. It's one thing to say let's not use clearly offensive terms that are derogatory, intended and only used as slurs or insults, etc. It's another to start scrubbing language of otherwise neutral words that are used appropriately just because they were once used in an offensive way.

Fundamentally, I'm in favor of not insulting people, but I'm against this kind of extreme speech enforcement and censorship, especially when there are no clearly defined logical limits.


As near as I can tell, it was an attempt to give the race a "niche" in 3.5 (IIRC). The vague justification is that the half elf generally takes the more appealing features of both parents. Considering the in game fluff is, and always has been, that half-elves are subject to prejudice from both sides, I find it somewhat incongruous.

It could also be taken as a bit offensive: "That half-elf girl better learn to shake her thang before the dandelion eaters or square faces decide to have themselves an old-fashioned lynchin'."

A couple real world examples came to mind, but that one turned my stomach enough.
I do think that the +2 Charisma fits with their Tolkien-source inspiration better, though there I would argue that they are less of the Elrond the Half-Elven sort and more of the Aragorn (i.e., Numenorean) sort, where they are an ancestry of humans with elven blood.


Right now "race" is the most fitting word to describe creatures like orcs, elves, dwarves etc. It actually is more appropriate for fantasy than it is real life so there is no reasons to change it.
They can be peoples (as in "free peoples" in LotR). Kin was suggested upthread. Ancestry also seems harmless enough.

If the justification is "some may not like it" where do you draw the line ?

-Do you remove demons, necromancy or magic in general because they deter overly religious people ?

- Do you remove religion and gods because some people may have been raised in abusive religious households/communities ?

-Do you remove magic because some people may come from cultures where superstition of magic was a source of abuse ?

Etc etc.
For me, it's not "some people may not like it". As I posted upthread, I have RPG books that I wouldn't want my children to read, because of what those books convey about human identity, status etc.

The reason I don't care about demons and magics in my book is because I think they're fantasies. Whereas reactionary views about human identity are real things that matter to me, my family and my friends.

I am sure you are familiar with the term "false equivalence".
Yes, I am familair.
Are you actually SAYING that I'm making a fallacious argument and that "race" isn't an inaccurate term at best and potentially offensive at worst?

Also, "Indian" is an actual nationalty distinct from Native Americans.
Yes. I am aware of the existence of the 1.3 billion Indians from that subcontinent. Which is largely irrelevant to the inaccurate and offensive usage of the word to describe the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people of North America.

No, not really.

The terms themselves sound "off" and "wrong" in comparison to "race". THey sound too "past tense", too "forgone" so to speak, while "race" sounds more "present" and descritpive.

Also, while they may be fine for individualistic use they become awkard and problematic when needing to describe groups.

It's fine to say "he is of Elf ancestry" but not " The Elven ancestry/origin has pointy ears"

See where it sounds silly ?
So rephrase.

"People of elven ancestry have pointed ears."
There. That works just fine. That literally took me 2 seconds.

-Species sound too scientific, too impersonal, too dehumanising. Whereas Race still retains the element of humane and personhood.
Species does sound too scientific. I prefer it for Star Wars/Trek.

Race, however, brings along connotations of "pure race" and racial distinctions, which very much are not humane and have literally been used to deny people person-hood. To many, "race" is as dehumanising" as "breed".

And it's not like "race" as we use it is any less modern than "species". Race in the modern sense dates to the 17th Century. Meanwhile, "species" dates to the 14th Century.

heritage sounds as awkar as ancestry/origin
Only because you're making it.
I'm sure people used to thing "black" and "African American" sounded awkward. Doesn't mean we should keep using the previous term.

And if given the choices of writing something that sounds awkward and writing something that makes people feel uncomfortable and carries a long history of racism, I'm going to choose awkward every single time.

nation is a sociopolitical notion, not a biological one as race is
The "elf nation" sounds just fine.

While "Race" retains the biological differentiation of each one of them.
You missed the part where Races are not really biologically differentiated and that the "races" have been mingling and mixing for 12,000 years.
It's a term with a long history of use in racism, at its core being a way to define people as "white" and "non-white". Or, in the case of D&D, human or demihuman/ non-human.

Yeah... I'm sure literally calling an entire group of people "non-human" won't cause intense emotions from anyone...

Disagree. Christian Conservatives were offended by all sorts of innocuous things. Other religious denominations are offeded by others.
1) Who decides what is and is not "innocuous"?
2) Because you find their offences innocuous, it doesn't matter if you offend them?
3) Because one group is offended by innocuous things, all offences are innocuous?

Good thing, fantasy doesnt apply it on human people then ?
But the people who play are, well, people.

It's not like the people in-world use the term "race". They just use "elf" or "dwarf". "Race" is a game term used by the gamers above the table.

I also thought of changing the term but, so far none of the alternatives seem good enough.
"Scion" perhaps ?
Pathfinder & Shadow of the Demon Lord use "Ancestry". I think One Ring uses "Origin". Those and "Heritage" are likely the choices D&D should pick from with its next edition.


First Post
Changing the subject
Redbeard mentions ….Neil Gaiman who? Oh the author of Coraline. I saw the movie. You going to quote something from an author who I never hear of to make a point. Yawn. Yes I google his quote.

Neil Gaiman isnt exactly uknown as you try to portray him.

That being said...the quote does come off as obnoxious.

Political correctness =/= treating people with respect.

Whitewashing history, religious censoring etc etc would also be political correctness.


If context and actual word definitions are irrelevant and all that is required is for someone to have real world emotions regarding a word in order to ban it, where does that stop?


I'm against this kind of extreme speech enforcement and censorship
I think you're confused about what counts as "banning" and "censorship".

You're free to publish whatever you like about your imaginary "races".

This is how it goes when you try to make sure you cannot possibly offend anyone - it's effectively a fool's errand because someone will always be offended
Yes, it's obviously a fool's errand to try to reduce racist connotations in fantasy story-telling!


First Post
Yes, it's obviously a fool's errand to try to reduce racist connotations in fantasy story-telling!

Calling elves,dwarves orcs as "races" has no bearing and no relation to the real life "race" and its negative associations.

Cut the patronising tone.

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